Purpose and Expression

The Yelling Coach

Many years ago, I was part of a team of psychologists researching social interaction between the coaches and players of a leading professional soccer team. It was the habit of one of the coaches to sit on the bench during a game, yelling profane criticism at the players in an effort to motivate them. When the data were analyzed it was found that the main effect of these supposedly motivational tirades was that all the players  avoided that part of the field that was in earshot of the coach!

This is a good example of a common communication problem – using expressive communication in an attempt to influence.

There are two broad categories of communication, expressive and purposeful.

Expressive communication entails the simple expression of thoughts and feelings. It is not primarily designed to provoke a response or to influence others. It is meant to be a statement of some aspect of our personal experience. Expressive communication does have value. By talking out loud, feelings and thoughts come into sharper focus. The act of expressing feelings helps define exactly what those feelings are and let’s others know how you feel. This is one of the great benefits of keeping a journal. Expressing is thinking. The expression of feelings can also help to relieve the pent-up tension and internalized pressure that accompanies strong emotions. Venting has great therapeutic value as the work of Dr James Pennebaker attests

There is also something else that is important about expressive communication – it’s easier and more natural.  Most people like to talk about themselves: That is a subject that is endlessly interesting to them and it requires little effort. Expressive communication does not require consideration of anyone else. Expressive communication is egocentric communication.

Purposeful communication, on the other hand, is designed to influence others, whether that is to buy our product, accept our proposal or simply agree with us. There are several problems, however, with purposeful communication.

First, because it is simply not an egocentric expression of our selves, it requires more effort. For one thing, effective purposeful communication means listening to your audience and tailoring your message to their needs.

Second, many people are often very unclear that they have a specific purpose.

Third, most of us are never trained in how to communicate purposefully. How many courses have you taken in listening skills, non-verbal communication, establishing rapport and techniques of influence?

A lack of training in purposeful communication leads to a reliance on expressive communication even when it is not appropriate. As children we have a naturally expressive rather than purposeful style. If you are never trained in anything different, however, the expressive and egocentric styles will predominate.

One of the biggest communication mistakes most people make, therefore, is that they use expressive and thus egocentric communication even when they are trying to influence others. This leads to miscommunication, frustration and failure. As if this is not bad enough, many of us  are unclear about the exact  purpose of our communication. So we are not sure what it is we are trying to achieve and we are not using the right tools to reach goals we have not articulated!

The use of expressive communication to influence others is often accompanied by what can be best described as “magical thinking.” Magical thinking leads to the conviction that influence is possible when the only grounds for believing this is your fervent desire for it to be so. In my counseling work I often came across individuals who had unrealistic expectations about their ability to change others in their lives. One of the great frustrations in life is the recognition that we cannot control another person unless they are compliant. (It is also one of the most liberating ideas, too, if you embrace it)

Simple expression of feelings and thoughts rarely  influence others.  Your reality is your reality and it’s often not shared by your listener. We  imagine others will immediately empathize with our expressive communication but that rarely happens or is generally powerful enough to exert real influence.

Purposeful communication requires building a bridge between speaker and listener so that their worlds can be connected. Without that bridge, speaker and listener are separate, unconnected entities.


Listening: How to Get Someone To Open Up To You

Many years ago, at the beginning of my career as a therapist, I was working with a couple. The wife’s main complaint was not an uncommon one — “my husband doesn’t reveal much of himself, so I never know what he is really thinking and feeling.” Indeed, her husband was a pretty quiet guy and after a few sessions I was wondering whether he truly was alexithymic (that’s one of my favorite words so I had to put in here! )The word means “difficulty talking about emotions.”

Some time during our fifth session he did express a very personal feeling. No sooner were the words out of his mouth before his wife launched into a rant on why his feelings were invalid and unreasonable. Whereupon, the man stood bolt upright and announced, “That’s why I never say anything,” and left the office never to be seen again.

For a young therapist it was a great demonstration of the fact that if you want people to talk to you about important thoughts and feelings, you have to create an environment where they will feel safe to do so. Very few people will reveal themselves if they think they are going to be criticized, ridiculed or simply not taken seriously. At the heart of effective communication and listening then, is the ability to create an atmosphere where the other person trusts you will be respectful of what they are about to say. When I think about trust in a relationship, the ability to trust your partner to respect what you are saying maybe the most important trust there is.

Sometimes, people bring that fear and mistrust into their interactions, in which case you will have to work extra hard to reassure them that they are safe to reveal themselves. One implication of this is that wherever practical you need to ensure that you have the time and mindset to create a trusting environment. The automatic brain response to something we don’t agree with is to attack, so creating the right trusting environment takes practice and effort. It’s not typically the default setting. So if you are tired, stressed, distracted or overwhelmed, the chances are that you are not going to be a patient listener and under those circumstances perhaps the conversation is best delayed.

Many people are raised in environments where there is little respect or trust and as a result feel very inhibited from talking intimately about themselves. A partner who can create a trusting environment to reverse that learned inhibition offers a great, nurturing service, that will go along way to creating intimacy. And talking of intimacy, physical intimacy follows from the intimacy that is generated where two people can trust each other enough to have an open and honest interaction based on trust and respect.

So think about your interactions. I expect there are some people you feel very safe with and others you don’t trust at all. Could you do better at creating a communication environment where people feel safe to talk to you? If you are a walking attack waiting to happen, don’t expect people to trust you.

Respecting someone else’s views and feelings — and even understanding them — is not the same as accepting them or tolerating them. This confusion between understanding and accepting often interferes with the ability to create a trusting communication environment and will be the subject of a future blog.

5 Brain Based Reasons Why This Is An Incredibly Powerful PSA

Don’t text and drive!

If you’ve not seen this very graphic video before, I strongly suggest that you watch this 4 minute clip before reading my comments. It is part of a 30 minute film made by Tredegar Comprehensive School and Gwent Police (Gwent is located in south-east Wales,UK) entitled “COW –The film that will stop you from texting and driving,” and written and directed by Peter Watkins-Hughes. The clip stands on its own as an incredibly powerful message and it’s compelling for a number of reasons that might inform us about really effective messaging. It has been acclaimed as a potent influence on driver behavior.

5 Reasons Why This Is So Powerful

  1. From the brain’s perspective, experience is king. If you want to make a point, or certainly get people to change their behavior, experience is far more powerful than words. If you can’t get people to experience the real thing ( and hopefully you wouldn’t in this case!) watching it is the next best thing. There’s evidence that watching an event like this uses some of the same neural pathways that would be involved if you were actually in the real situation.
  2. Visual processing creates experience far better then verbal processing. A picture is worth a thousand words, a video is a thousand pictures, a graphic video is worth…what do you think?
  3. Verbal processing can actually inhibit experience.The fact that there’s no running commentary, commentary at all or tag line, makes this even more powerful in my view.
  4. If you want to get people to curtail a behavior, you need to focus on the negative consequences of that behavior in the most memorable way. The emotional components of a memory are critical in the ability to, and intensity of, recall. The more emotional the experience, the better the memory is.The clip focuses on the negative consequences in a way that assaults the senses: the jolting crush of the metal, the anguish of the screams, the helplessness of the bystanders, the silence of the parents as their daughter implores them to wake up, the implied gravity of the hovering medevac helicopters.
  5. As it stands this isn’t a pitch, it’s an experience, which I believe amplifies its power. Obviously the filmmaker is trying to make a point, but that wasn’t inherent in my experience of watching this video. This allowed me, at least, to experience it rather than analyze it.

All of the above, and no doubt others some of you can come up with, make this an extraordinarily powerful message that I believe would have significant impact on driver behavior, and it apparently has. I suspect it is something that would be remembered far more vividly and frequently than a message that has verbal elements, statistics, talking head experts, etc.

What do you think? If you just had 4:16 to make this message would you modify it at all, and if so, how? Oh, in case you wondering, it was made on a budget of about $15,000.

Communication: Do you want to be right or effective?

How do you get to be a really effective communicator who can motivate and influence others? First, you need to recognize that human beings aren’t logical, we’re emotional beings with the ability to rationalize. When we don’t want to emotionally accept what someone is saying to us, we can make up all sorts of great reasons why not to accept the message. The reluctance to accept communications, and to embrace change in general, is called resistance. Recognizing the inevitability of resistance and having tools to overcome it are critical parts of being a good communicator.

Obstacles to Acceptance. Resistance occurs for several reasons but mostly because accepting the message creates conflict with the person’s view of the world or themselves, violates beliefs and values, and is seen as threatening in some way. One of the keys to effective communication, therefore, is the ability to design messages that do not arouse resistance. Another key is the ability to defuse resistance once it occurs.

One of the most common communication mistakes is to attempt to confront resistance head-on.

Confrontational techniques typically only increase resistance rather than reduce it. The effective communicator uses subtlety rather than force to overcome listener resistance. It is almost impossible to break down resistance through confrontation unless you have natural and significant authority over the person who is resisting – and even then the chance of success is questionable. The fact of the matter is, as Dale Carnegie in his excellent book ‘How to Win Friends and Influence People’ says, “No-one wins an argument.” Confrontational techniques might occasionally seem to be successful in breaking down barriers and assuring acceptance but typically these gains are short-term and illusory. The best way to get effective acceptance is to get the listener to own the message.

Rolling Rather Than Butting. If threat increases resistance, it follows that the opposite of threat might be helpful in removing resistance. Resistance increases when a freedom, behavior or possession is challenged so resistance is best overcome by reinforcing the listener’s choices and emotions, not taking them away. The technique of validating the listener’s choice rather than attacking it is called “rolling with the resistance” and is the most effective way of influencing people to abandon their resistance or circumvent it altogether. This occurs because the technique is not threatening in that it honors the listener’s choices rather than invalidating them. It’s not that you abandon your message, it’s that you present it in such a way so the listener owns it. For me, that is a key communication skill.

Milton Erickson was a legendary psychotherapist largely because of his recognition that resistance could not be confronted but had to be circumvented. One of my favorite Erickson stories, recounted by Jay Haley in his excellent book on Erickson’s work entitled “Uncommon Therapy,” concerned a young woman who had “two possessive, oversolicitous parents,” otherwise known as control freaks (p.281).  As a high school graduation present the parents had extended the house so that their daughter could live there when she got married! Understandably, the daughter was feeling totally trapped and fearing that she would never get free.

Faced with this situation, the natural inclination to use logic rather than emotion, might lead one to explain to the parents that their control was excessive, paralyzing and completely inappropriate and that they should stop at once. Erickson knew, however, that all this would do would harden the parents’ attitude even more and thus be completely counter-productive.

So how can you use the parents’ own position to convince them to give their daughter her independence?

What Erickson did was to praise the parents for their concern for their daughter. What a sacrifice they were making because when other parents are happy to see their children leave the nest, they would be continuing parenting. When the daughter inevitably got married, “they would be available for baby-sitting  at any time, unlike most parents who don’t like that imposition.”  They could look forward to future grandchildren beginning to talk and walk and they “would be in and out of their house all the time. We recalled what it was like to have a toddler getting into everything, and how all the breakable things had to be placed up high and the house rearranged. Other grandparents wouldn’t be that willing to sacrifice their ways of living.”

Of course, Erickson did this with all sincerity not in a mocking or patronizing way. He also went on to focus on the differences in grandparenting styles and some of the conflict that might ensue as a result.

“After having this discussion, they decided they really didn’t want to have their daughter and her family living with them.”

Note how Erickson used the parents’ very own desire to be in control to help them reach that decision. He did this by implying that they would have less control with the daughter living right there with them. Erickson empowered the message by using the client’s natural emotions to convey it!

Of course, a lot of communication is not done in an intensive one-on-one situation like the case described. However, that doesn’t mean that the same principles of resistance and acceptance don’t apply. Even if you’re talking to a group of 200, it is a group of 200 individuals, each with their own emotions, attitudes and values that will determine whether they will accept your message or not.

Four Important Principles. In situations where you don’t have any authority over your audience, and even in some cases where you do, like parenting an adolescent, remember these four rules if you want someone to own your message.

Don’t challenge in a way that arouses resistance. Most cornered animals fight rather than submit.

Use the person’s key emotions and attitudes, in this case, the need for control, to carry your message.

Emphasize choices. Every behavior is a choice with a price and a pay-off. The best we can do is make informed choices. This places freedom as well as responsibility squarely where it belongs.

Focus on the person’s goals. Show how your message is completely compatible with the person’s own feelings, beliefs and goals.

Strategies for achieving the above will be the subject of future posts.

Of course, if you just want to be right rather than effective, you can be as confrontational as you wish.